The Haunted Gallery

The Haunted Gallery

What fabulous book cover this is. I’d buy the book purely on the strength of the picture – in fact I just have. The image is a 1901 poster for the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company, taken from the copyright collection of The National Archives. Biograph’s 70mm films were a special feature of the Palace Theatre in London (still active today, currently showing Spamalot), and Biograph programmes generally featured news items – hence the full slogan on the screen (which is obscured on the book cover), ‘The Biograph Reproduces the Latest Events from All Parts of the World’.

But the book within is no less of a treasure. The subject of The Haunted Gallery: Painting, Photography, Film c.1900 is how the moving picture changed visual culture at the end of nineteenth century. Lynda Nead is an art and cultural historian, whose first foray into film history this is. Although the subtitle implies equal coverage of painting and photography, the motion picture takes centre stage, but is set into new and exciting contexts by demonstrating its effects alongside the whole range of contemporary visual media, including painting, photography, stage magic, the magic lantern, posters and even astronomy.

The result is a giddyingly rich brew of evidence and analysis, all expounding a shift in visual culture from stasis to motion, which in turn altered modes of perception and ushered in our modern world. The book’s title comes from a characteristic Nead use of the visual as metaphor: an illustration of the Haunted Gallery at Hampton Gallery, which she describes thus:

A space for pictures and for ghosts, the gallery is also for endless pacing watched by portraits of generations of the dead. It is a place of presences but not life, of likenesses which seem real but which are merely representations or figments of the imagination. The picture gallery is also a place of alternating light and darkness; it is a narrow apartment illuminated by shifts of light cast by unseen objects obliterating the light … How apt that the shadows cast on the ceiling by the windows and tapestried walls look like a strip of film, with intermittent, spaced-out picture frames, separated by short intervals of blank darkness. Set this sequence in motion and the enchantment begins; the pictures come to life and the ghosts haunt the gallery.

Nead finds in the haunted gallery a powerful metaphor for the ‘uncanny magic’ of early film. Typically she finds multiple analogues for this concept, from Edison and Biograph advertising films of ancestors climbing down from portraits on the wall to drink Dewar’s Whisky, to similar Scottish ancestors doing much the same in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera Ruddigore, to Georges Méliès’ films The Living Playing Cards and The Mysterious Portrait, to tableaux vivant, to the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea (the statue that came to life). It all interconnects.

It certainly helps if you can see the pictures, and the book is richly illustrated throughout, sometimes enthralling so. Themes covered include the wheel and movement, representation of the everyday and the detective camera, the vision of mobility generated by the new-fangled motor car, the strip (the film strip, the cartoon strip and the striptease), and the astronomical imagination. This latter section looks at visions of the heavens (by way of serpentine dances, G.F. Watts, electricity and the Paris 1900 Exhibition), including some startling examples of astronomical photography spilling over into the imaginative world, represented in particular by Camille Flammarion, the French astronomer, author and astronomical filmmaker, whose 1872 novel Lumen describes all-seeing beings who view the passing of a time as a ray of light, in a constant relay of images. Metaphors, metaphors everywhere.

The best image comes last – a map of the procession through London taken to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee on 22 June 1897 (filmed by many cameramen), marked with bright yellow explosion symbols to mark where Martian explosions occur as recorded in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, published in the same year. However, it’s not all image and metaphor, and there’s a good deal of practical understanding of the production of images (still and moving) underpinning the theoretical stuff. The moving images make sense on a practical level as well as an imaginative one.

As with Jonathan Auerbach’s Body Shots, covered in a recent post, here is someone from outside the usual early film studies coterie, looking on the subject with fresh eyes and leading it into a broader cultural world, demonstrating bold analogies and connections, inviting in those from other disciplines to see how film was integral to a change in consciousness in the late-Victorian/early-Edwardian era. Both publications have enriched our field. I feel that the Bioscope may have to expand, to become just that little bit more metaphorical, if it is properly to represent its subject in its contexts. We’ll see.

Brian Coe 1930-2007

Brian Coe

Brian Coe

It is sad to have to report the death of Brian Coe on 18 October 2007. To anyone with an interest in the history of the technologies of cinematography or photography his work over four decades has been, and remains, indispensible. He joined Kodak in 1952, where he helped found its education service. He made a particular impact with his writings in the early 1960s which forensically overturned the romantic myths which had seen William Friese-Greene chauvinistically championed as a pioneer of cinematography.

He was Curator of the Kodak Museum from 1969 to 1984, building up the collection to be one of international renown, and curating many pioneering exhibitions. When the collection moved to the National Museum of Photography Film and Television in Bradford, Brian became Curator at the Royal Photographic Society’s collection in Bath. In 1989 he joined the Museum of the Moving Image as special events co-ordinator, organising shows, events and organisations on an extraordinary range of topics, all underpinned by exemplary research and presented with enthusiasm, finding a perfect balance between scholarship and entertainment.

At Kodak he built up not only a great collection but considerable personal expertise, which found lasting expression in his many publications. The remarkable thing about his books is that they have not dated. Twenty or thirty years on they are still relied upon as standard reference works, notable as much for their clarity of exposition as their steadfastly reliable content. They include The Birth of Photography (1976), Colour Photography (1978), Cameras: From daguerrotypes to instant pictures (1978), and the incomparable The History of Movie Photography (1981). This is still the best book on cinema technology that exists, and it is hard to see how it could be bettered. It is particularly strong on early cinema technologies – magic lanterns, the optical toys and chronophotographic experiments of the so-called ‘pre-cinema’ era, the first cameras and projectors, the development of colour cinematography, early widescreen systems, the birth of home movies. Its illustrations have been plundered by countless other sources. Film archivists swear by the book – it used to be (and I hope it still is) standard reading for anyone working at the National Film and Television Archive’s preservation centre. Another gem is Muybridge and the Chronophotographers (1992), a small exhibition book reportedly thrown together in a great hurry, but a handy reference guide that I turn back to again and again.

Sadly Brian suffered a serious stroke in 1995, and took no further active part in the worlds of film and photography to which he had contributed such invaluable knowledge. It was a sad curtailment to a varied and richly productive career, recognised through such honours as his Fellowship of the Royal Society Arts, but leaving him little known to the general film enthusiast. Check out one of his books – they’ll be in the local library or second-hand book store. They look beautiful, and they wisely and reliably inform. Thank you, Brian.

The Twenties in Colour

Twenties in Colour

Dancers in ruins of Angkor-Vat, Cambodia, 1922 © Albert-Kahn museum, from

The promised follow-up series on Albert Kahn’s Archives de la Planète project, covering the 1920s, started on BBC4 this evening. The four-part series, The Twenties in Colour, follows on from the earlier series, The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn, in showing how Kahn’s team of still and motion picture photographers continued their task to make a photographic recod of the world. Included in the series is Paris after the Armistice, scenes in the Middle and Far East, and (I hope) some of the scientific-medical cinematography produced by Jean Comandon, who collaborated with Kahn in the late twenties.

Those who want find more about Kahn’s work, and web sources for Autochrome photographs etc, should go to the earlier post, Searching for Albert Kahn, which has the background story and a number of useful links.

Meanwhile, for those of us unable (or in my case, too idle) to get hold of BBC4, the original Wonderful World of Albert Kahn series is to be showing in re-edited, half-hour episodes form on BBC2, starting 16 November, at 19.30pm.

The Turner Prize


Steve McQueen’s Deadpan, from

I visited Tate Britain today and saw the Turner Prize retrospective exhibition. There are exhibits there which relate to silent film. Best known probably is Steve McQueen’s Deadpan (1997), where the artist recreates Buster Keaton’s legendary stunt from Steamboat Bill Jr, with a similar wooden frontage of a house seen falling around McQueen from assorted angles. But you can also see Gillian Wearing’s 60 Minutes’ Silence (1996), a hilarious work in which a group of twenty-six police officers pose for a photograph in rows but have to stay still for sixty minutes. The more you look, the more they wobble, and the more hypnotic it becomes. And equally hypnotic is Douglas Gordon’s video installation Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1995), which shows blown-up sequences from the 1931 Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, with Fredric March, one positive and one negative side-by-side, eerily run slowly (and silently) as though digging inside the agony.

All this and the usual cows split in half, elephant dung and light bulbs switching on and off. Well worth seeing.

Pictures ought not to move

Not everyone liked the silent movies. There were plenty of critics who scorned the new medium, often as much for the audience it drew as the quality of the films themselves. Mechanically-produced, cheap, easy to view, inescapably bound up with urbanisation and crowds, above all modern, they drew contemptuous attacks from many social commentators and critics more at ease with the well-established art forms.

A fascinating example is ‘Moving Pictures‘, an essay by the surgeon and essayist Stephen Paget, from his 1916 book Sometimes I Think, which a friend alerted me to recently. It can be found on the Gaslight website, and I’ll quote a few passages here and encourage you to investigate the essay in its entirety.

Here’s how Paget begins his argument:

We are so accustomed to moving pictures, that we do not trouble ourselves to study their nature, or their place in the general order of things. We take them for granted. Youth, especially, takes them for granted, having no memory of a time when they were not. But some of us were born into a world in which all the pictures stood still: and I challenge youth to defend the cause of moving pictures. Let the lists be set, and the signal given for the assault. On the shield of youth, the motto is Moving Pictures are All Right. On my antiquated shield, the motto is Pictures Ought Not to Move.

Pictures, of one sort or another, are of immemorial age. Portraits of the mammoth were scratched on gnawed bones, by cave-dwellers, centuries of centuries ago: and we look now at their dug-up work, and feel ourselves in touch with them. The nature of pictures was decided at the very beginning of things, as the natures of trees and of metals were decided. It is not the nature of trees to walk, nor of metals to run uphill: it is not the nature of pictures to move. Pictures and statues, by the law of their being, are forbidden to move. That commandment is laid on them which Joshua, in the Bible-story, lays on the sun and the moon – Stand thou still. They must be motionless: ’tis their nature to: they exist on that understanding, as you and I exist on the understanding that we are mortal. If I were not to die, I should not be a man. If pictures were to move, they would not be pictures.

It’s a curious argument, but at root Paget wants pictures not to move because to do so inhibits the imagination. And this leads him to his own logical conclusion, that motion pictures cannot be an art form:

The photograph of a friend, on my mantelpiece, gives play to my remembrance of him. Within the limits of photography, it is perfect. But if it moved – if its eyes followed me about the room, and its hands had that little gesture which he had with his hands, and its lips opened and shut – it would be hateful, and I should throw it in the fire.

The great pictures in the National Gallery – the Rembrandt portraits, the Raphael Madonnas – imagine them moving. Their beauty would vanish, their nature would be destroyed. The Trustees would immediately sell them, to get rid of them. Probably, they would go on tour: admission threepence, children a penny. Then they would be “filmed,” and the films would be “released,” and a hundred reproductions would be gibbering all over the country. The originals would finally be bartered, in Central Africa, to impressionable native potentates, in exchange for skins or tusks: and if pictures were able to curse, these certainly would curse the day on which they began to move.

By these instances, it is evident that pictures ought not to move. The worse they are, the less it would shock us if they did. The better they are, the more it would shock us. Why must they not move? Because they are works of art. It follows, that moving pictures are not works of art.

QED. Paget then intriguingly calls upon the common argument that films were originally a tool of science (which is quite true), only to use this to bolster his argument against them:

They are works of science: they are “scientific toys.” Science invented them, just for the fun of inventing them: made them out of an old “optical illusion.” They are that friend of my childhood, the zoëtrope, or wheel of life, adjusted to show the products of instantaneous photography. They are “applied science.” … But scientific inventions, unlike works of art, have an immeasurable power of growth and development. They can be improved ad libitum: they can be multiplied ad infinitum. Nothing could be less like a work of art coming from a studio than a scientific invention coming from a laboratory. The work of art is made once and for all: it may be copied, but it cannot be repeated: you cannot have two sets of Elgin Marbles, or two Sistine Madonnas. The scientific invention is like the genie who came out of the fisherman’s jar: you cannot tell where it will stop, nor what it will do next.

Paget, despite his distaste for the motion picture, appears to have been sufficiently aware of the medium to describe in knowledgeable detail the circumstances of its exhibition in war-time:

I should like to see the War bring down the moving-pictures business to one-third of its present size, bring it down with a rush, and with the prospect of a further reduction. Picture-palaces in London are like public-houses: too many of them, too many of us nipping in them; too many people making money out of us, whether we be nipping in the palaces or the houses. The more we patronise them, the more they exploit us: and some of us are taking more films than are good for us. … The bill of fare, at the picture-palaces, includes trash: but it pays them to sell it to us: and we behave as if these palaces belonged to us, while they behave as if we belonged to them. Picture-palaces and public-houses, alike, amuse all of us and enrich some of us: they do good, they do harm: they have to be watched, these by censorship, those by the police: and both these and those are backed by wealth, and by interests too powerful to be set aside.

Paget is most interesting, however, when he takes the motion picture to task for its illusion of reality, still more its pretension to drama:

What is the nature of moving pictures? What are they “of themselves,” and where do they come in the general order of things? Take, for instance, a waterfall. If we look at a waterfall, we see water moving. If we look at a picture of a waterfall, we imagine water moving. If we look at a moving picture of a waterfall, we see a picture moving, a very beautiful object: still, we are looking at an “optical illusion,” not at a waterfall. Or take a more critical example: take a moving picture which not merely moves, but acts. What is it, really, that we are looking at, when we see, on the screen, Hamlet, or How She Rescued Him, or Charlie Chaplin?

He is an actor equal to Dan Leno: the same unfaltering originality, the same talent for dominating the scene, holding our attention, appealing to us by his diminutive stature, his gentle acceptance of situations as he finds them, his half-unconscious air of doing unnatural things in a natural way. But think what we lose in the transition from Dan Leno on the stage to Charlie Chaplin on the screen. Dan was really there: Charlie is not. Dan talked and sang: Charlie is mute. Dan’s performance was human: Charlie’s, by the cutting of the film, and by the driving of the machine at great speed, is super-human. In brief, on the Drury Lane stage I saw Dan Leno, and heard him: but on the screen I do not see Charlie Chaplin–let alone hearing him: I see only a moving picture of him: and this picture so cleverly faked that I see him doing what he never did nor ever could. It was delightful, every moment of it: all the same, it is an optical illusion. Nor is it a straightforward illusion, like the old zoëtrope: it is rendered grotesque and fantastical by the conjuring-tricks of the people who made the film.

He then goes on to decry the idea of filming Shakespeare, particularly in dumbshow (‘Let nothing ever induce you to see him “filmed”‘). Yet he is not wholly against film, when it does what only film can do:

It follows, that the best plays, on the screen, are those which can best afford to lose the advantage of voices and presences, and to be taken for what they are. Wild farce, with lots of conjuring-tricks in it, is the best of all. In pantomime, with a film so faked and speeded-up that fat men run a mile a minute, and cars whirl through space like shooting stars, and all Nature is convulsed, these picture-plays are at their best, joyfully turning the universe upside-down with the flick of a wheel. In the mad rush of impossibilities, there is no time for words, and no need of them.

Perhaps inevitably, Paget is most sympathetic towards the film that depicts reality, and, as a doctor, he shows especial interest in the medical film.

In the display of moving pictures of real things, all the way up from elemental movement to human action, the picture-palace is our good friend: it is servant, by divine appointment, to reality. Moving pictures of living germs of disease, colossally magnified by the adjustment of micro-photography to the making of a film, are the delight of all doctors: moving pictures of wild creatures are the delight of all naturalists: scenes of human life in diverse parts of the world – the crowds in London streets, the crowds in Eastern bazaars, the work and play and habits and customs of the nations – these are the delight of all of us, and will never cease to delight us. For this wealth of visions, this treasury of knowledge, let us be properly grateful.

He concludes by referring to the Cabinet film – an failed attempt by Cecil Hepworth to make a film of the British cabinet – arguing that for the great to be filmed is to lower their dignity (“the value of a moving picture of a great man is lowered, if he is posing for it”); contrasting this with the official film of The Battle of the Somme.

A moving picture of a little group of great men, behaving as the camera expects them to behave, might deservedly fail to have power over us. But here are legions of men, not under orders from the camera, but employed in a business of tragedy such as the world has never suffered till now: men great, not in the Westminster-Abbey sense of the word, but in the greatness of their purpose, in their unconquerable discipline, their endurance: they go into the presence of Death without looking back, and they come out from it laughing, some of them: you see them treading Fear under their feet, you see Heaven, revealed in their will, flinging itself on the screen. You and I, safe and snug over here, let us receive what they give us, their exampl

This is a very interesting, thought-provoking essay, which is eloquent in the way it challenges the motion picture’s pretensions to art and its apprehension of reality. It calls for better pictures rather than no pictures at all, and its distaste is chiefly aimed at the business that creates films rather than the masses who watch them. The complete essay is well worth reading. After all, if we are equipped with an imagination, why do we need pictures to move at all?

American Memory

Among the very best resources on the web is the Library of Congress’ American Memory site. The purpose of American memory is to provide “free and open access through the Internet to written and spoken words, sound recordings, still and moving images, prints, maps, and sheet music that document the American experience”. Its Motion Pictures section is a marvellous example of this, offering users access to a wide range of predominantly early cinema subjects, all available for viewing and downloading, in MPEG, QuickTime and RealMedia formats.

Each collection is usefully contextualised and indexed, and there are impeccable cataloguing records. The collections with silent film material (both fiction and non-fiction, but chiefly the latter) are:

Needless to say, this is all non-copyright material, one of the consequences of which being that eBay is full of DVDs of early film materials which are simply repackaged downloads from this site.